Helen Clark slams WHO for opposing China travel bans, jury out on lab leak

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London: Australia and New Zealand were right to ban flights from China at the first sign of the pandemic last year, despite objections from the World Health Organisation and Beijing.

That is the view of former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark who co-chaired the international expert panel that spent a year investigating the coronavirus outbreak.

She said that the WHO was wrong to oppose the “absolutely essential” travel bans first introduced on flights from China, and then extended to Europe and the rest of the world as the pandemic spread from Wuhan where the virus was first detected.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark led the independent investigation into the coronavirus.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“We did that even though it was against the advice of the WHO and the international health regulations which discourage constraints on travel,” she said.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response co-chair made the forceful comments to the Australian-based Rekindling Hope podcast hosted by opposition frontbencher and former treasurer Chris Bowen and former Labor candidate Sam Crosby.

Bowen, who was the opposition’s health spokesman at the time, said the organisation’s objection to Australia’s travel ban, was “extraordinary”.

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Marketa, where COVID-19 is said to have originated.Credit:AP

“I remember the Chinese government was using that as a leverage point to argue that there shouldn’t be travel bans on China because the WHO hadn’t called for them,” Bowen recalled.

“I had one meeting with the Chinese ambassador where he made the point and we had to push back and say ‘no we support the government’s decision’,” he said.

Australia and New Zealand have some of the strictest travel bans in the world as part of their zero-tolerance strategy towards COVID-19.

Clark said countries that did nothing about travel early on were badly affected and made the pandemic impossible to stop as, by then, it was “well and truly out of the bag”.

“And we’ve never recovered,” she said.

The World Health Organisation was criticised for being too close to China but ended up agreeing to an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.Credit:AP

She wants the United Nations General Assembly to decide on a contemporary agenda for the WHO but said that was being stifled by forces trying to keep control of any changes in Geneva, where it is headquartered.

“The International Health Regulations are out of time, they were written in 2005 before anything like the level of global connection via travel. And it’s not appropriate when there’s a dangerous respiratory pathogen on the loose, as with this one, to say you don’t have to do anything about travel – of course you do.”

Clark said it was “dreadful” and an example of inertia that the World Health Assembly agreed in May to meet again in November “to consider developing a WHO global agreement”.

“I’ve had senior people from countries around the world explode at me and say ‘what on earth are they thinking, my country is sinking under this and they’re going to take six months to talk about a convention?’,” Clark said.

“Jury still out” on lab leak

Clark did not dismiss the theory the virus could have originated from a lab leak, possibly from the Wuhan Institute of Virology which specialises in bat research.

She said there was “no firm evidence” for either theory but there were three hypotheses.

These included the possibility of a researcher becoming infected while collecting bat material in caves, and material leaking during a transfer between two Wuhan virus research facilities, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the lesser known Wuhan Centre for Disease Control located near the Huanan Seafood Market. The market was originally pinpointed as the source of the disease and the first reported cluster of infections.

And she said the leak could have come directly from the Institute of Virology because its biosafety protocols were “not of the highest order”.

“All I’ll say is that the jury’s out. I don’t think that should be seen as any geopolitically motivated attack to say that the jury is out. Everyone wants to know and the more open and helpful that China could be with that – the happier we all will be because we all need to learn from these things.”

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